Mount Street Cemetery

McKenzie Terrace, Kelburn
  • Mount Street Cemetery is, with Bolton Street Cemetery, Wellington’s oldest cemetery. Established in 1841, it was set aside from the main cemetery as a purely Catholic facility after a request from Bishop Pompallier for land to be reserved for that purpose. The site, on the hills above the new town, was in use until 1891, when Karori Cemetery opened. However, family plots remained open and the last interment took place in 1954. Although there are only around 200 headstones, up to 1,150 people are thought to be buried here and many of the graves are likely to be unmarked.

    The modest annual use and the cemetery’s location made maintenance difficult, even before the cemetery closed, and it only received intermittent attention for much of the 20th century. Following a proposal in 1991 to remove most of the gravestones and sell the land to Victoria University, a voluntary group, the Friends of Mount Street Cemetery, was established to advocate for the cemetery and its heritage values. A conservation plan was prepared for the Diocese of Wellington in 1995 and this has since been updated twice. The Friends of Mount Street Cemetery was revived in 2010 and continues, with expert assistance, to protect and conserve the cemetery, with the support of the Diocese of Wellington.

    The cemetery, set on a steep hillside covered in old trees and not over-tended, is an attractive and well-worn old place with a wonderful patina of age. Surrounded by activity, it is an oasis of calm and tranquility.

  • close Physical Description
    • Setting close

      Mount Street Cemetery is located on the shoulder and side of a steep spur of land adjoining Victoria University; the land has a sunny and open outlook to the north and east across the city. The local topography is steep and undulating, with sharp banks around the northern corner where McKenzie Terrace is cut from the landscape. From any distance, the mature trees and planting make the cemetery difficult to distinguish from the much wider verdant area that surrounds the main VUW campus.

      Closer to the site, the immediate area is densely built up, both by residential housing and the large buildings of the university. Although the abundant green space and steep topography ameliorate the visual impact, the wider area is a very busy one, with considerable foot and motor traffic around the edges of the cemetery. However, entered from the top of the public path or from the bottom of the gully at McKenzie Terrace, the cemetery is a sudden and quite remarkable oasis of tranquility in the area.

      Perhaps due to the steep topography, or just from loss over time, the cemetery is not crammed full of grave markers, and there is the impression of it not being overcrowded. The area has an attractive and well-worn patina of age; it is kept, but not overtended and no part is too pristine. The trees and ample green space, the slightly dishevelled lawns and the variety of old grave markers all contribute to this effect.

    • Streetscape or Landscape close

      Not available

    • Contents and Extent close

      Mount Street Cemetery Heritage Area occupies a roughly triangular section of land comprising just over 0.46 of a hectare on the corner of McKenzie Terrace and the access path from Mount Street to Victoria University. The southern boundary is with a private residence on Wai-te-ata Road. Within the cemetery are marked and unmarked graves containing burials dating mostly from the 19th century. The grave markers and boundaries are constructed of concrete, stone, cast iron or timber.

    • Buildings close

      Not available

    • Structures and Features close

      The edges of the triangle of cemetery land are well defined. To the north and west it is marked by the public footpath between Mount Street and the VUW campus, with sharp banks at the north corner and simple fences further along the path; to the east, by the serpentine curves of McKenzie Terrace and Waiteata Road and a low boundary fence at the road-side; to the south a fenceline at the boundaryof a private residence on Waiteata Road. The land is covered with mature trees, with occasional views out to the city through the foliage.

      The graves are disposed in relatively orderly arrangements around several main paths, including one that runs straight down the gully to McKenzie Terrace, and in plan, the majority of the extant graves follow a series of contours around the land.

      The grave markers encompass a wide range of styles and materials; the markers are predominantly from the mid to late 19th century, and show a wide spectrum of both means and taste. Many of the surviving markers comprise a rectangular plastered brick or concrete plot with cast-iron railings and a marble headstone.

    • Other Features close

      Paths, steps, fences, information signs and panels, mature trees, shrubs and grass.

  • close Historic Context
    •  History of area

      New Zealand Company director and mastermind Edward Gibbon Wakefield held ideas on organised colonisation that were underpinned by various principles, including a belief in the importance of religious freedom. When surveyor Captain Mein Smith of the New Zealand Company drew up a plan for the Town of Wellington in August 1840, he allocated land not only for housing, parks and roading – but also cemeteries. New Zealand’s first Catholic Bishop, Jean Pompallier, had estimated that a total of 200 Catholics, including both clergy and community, resided in Wellington by this time and there was a clear need for consecrated land in which they could be buried and a wish on their part that this occur in land specifically set aside for Catholics.[1] Captain Mein Smith allocated 7.3 hectares of land at Bolton Street as a cemetery for the Church of England, Jewish and other burials and he allocated a separate, smaller plot of land as the first Roman Catholic cemetery in Wellington.

      The location was the hillside behind what later became known as The Terrace and it had a panoramic view of the harbour. The cemetery was consecrated by Bishop Pompallier on 6 January 1841. By the end of that year, Wellington’s Catholic community had erected a fence around the cemetery, followed in 1846 by a Presbytery for Wellington’s first Catholic Priest, Franciscan Father J.J.P. O’Reily, which was built within the perimeter. There was some initial confusion over the exact size of the cemetery, but the matter was settled by a Crown Grant on 27 July 1853, for an area of 1.16 hectares in trust to the Bishop Viard, Catholic Bishop of Wellington, and his successors.

      The majority of burials in the cemetery occurred between 1841 and 1891. Many of Wellington’s founding Catholic clergy and settlers are buried in the cemetery, including early Marist fathers and Sisters of Mercy. Of note are the graves of Father O’Reily, and early French clerics Father Jean-Baptiste Petitjean, Father Augustine Sauzeau and Brother Jean-Francois Yvert. A number of Catholic soldiers from the 65th Regiment are buried in the cemetery; their regiment arrived in the Hutt Valley in 1846 to take part in an operation against Te Rauparaha and Te Rangihaeata, and several chose to retire from service and settled in the area. A boom in the number of people arriving in Wellington during the 1870s as a result of Premier Julius Vogel’s public works and immigration scheme included many Irish Catholic assisted immigrants. The Catholic pioneers and settlers buried at the cemetery speak to the variety of immigrants who arrived in Wellington during the 19th century. There are Scots, Welsh, French, Italian, Austrian, German and Polish (and Maori) buried at Mount Street.

      Despite the association with notable Wellingtonians, the cemetery soon earned a reputation as a ‘neglected wilderness’.Slips, roaming cattle, earthquake damage and flourishing undergrowth, combined with the absence of sufficient funds or a continuous caretaker, meant maintenance was an ongoing problem for the church. Despite the efforts of intermittent caretakers and periodic working bees, in 1883 the cemetery was described as ‘a standing disgrace…overrun as it is by fennel and weeds, which reach to the altitude of a man’s shoulder’. Roaming goats nibbled at flowers placed on the graves and fennel, gorse and dock grew with aggressive abandon around the headstones. It wasn’t always in such poor condition; some photographs of the cemetery show that it was intermittently well maintained, at least on the margins. In 1882, for instance, a working party of 100 parishioners worked on the land clearing undergrowth. 

      Grave Yard Road (now McKenzie Terrace) was formed about 1895 on the cemetery’s eastern boundary. The very sharp cutting required for the road created a high bank that caused slips in poor weather. In 1896 parish priest Father Devoy asked the WCC to build a retaining wall to secure the bank, but nothing was done.

      The cemetery was formally closed by an act of Parliament on 28 July 1891, although a small number of Catholics continued to be buried there until 1954 - mainly in family plots.The last known burial was Alice Frost, who died on 2 November 1954 aged 79. Unlike Wellington’s other early cemetery at Bolton Street which passed to the Wellington City Council after its closure in 1891, the Mount Street Cemetery remained in church control.

      There were several efforts on the part of the Archdiocese to dispose of part – that which was not used for graves – or even all of the cemetery. In 1908 the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Wellington Empowering Act 1908 allowed the southern portion of the Cemetery to be leased and the proceeds went towards the upkeep of the remainder of the cemetery. When the church wanted to sell the land, another act was required. The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Wellington Empowering Act of 1926 allowed the unused southern half of the site to be sold for £3,000. It also allowed for the formation of Waiteata Road as an extension of McKenzie Terrace. A dispute ran on for the next five years as the Catholic Church, University and WCC negotiated the legality of an access way from Kelburn Parade to Salamanca Road, by way of Mount Street, that crossed over cemetery land. In 1936 this was declared a public access way.Throughout these negotiations the Church tried to persuade the WCC to take over upkeep of the cemetery in exchange for the land for the access way, but the Council declined. In 1941, the Church and University tried to persuade the WCC to turn the cemetery into a reserve and take over management, but nothing came of this either.

      During this period, the Church employed a casual caretaker to maintain the cemetery at regular intervals, but his efforts were largely considered a waste of time. Archbishop O’Shea wanted a plan and a permanent arrangement to keep the cemetery in good order, but nothing was concluded.

      In the 1950s the cemetery was identified as a potential source of land for Victoria University’s growing campus. In 1955 after the Reserves and Other Lands Act was passed, there was an exchange of land between the University, Church and WCC – with two lots vested in the University, and one in the WCC as an access way, but the Cemetery remained the responsibility of the Church.[18] In 1967 a plan to close the cemetery, reinter the remains and build a Catholic Hall of Residence on the site was approved by the Council in principal – but this eventually lapsed. By the late 1960s the cemetery had gained a reputation as a home to drug addicts and vandals – a reputation that led to the WCC undertaking a clean up in 1969. In the 1970s the University increasingly assumed maintenance responsibilities.[It cleared scrub and vegetation, mowed the lawns and undertook weed-eating as well as planting shrubs and small trees like pittosporums and agapanthus.

      The Catholic Church still envisaged that the land would eventually be sold to the University. In 1991 the Church approached the University with a new plan; they would remove most of the monuments and sell the University a largely open site that it could use for the recreational benefit of its growing numbers of students. Negotiations were made public by the Dominion newspaper and the resulting public outcry led to the formation of the Friends of Mount Street Cemetery (FMSC) - a group seeking to ‘preserve, protect and develop the sacred, wooded and historic atmosphere of the Mount Street Cemetery in perpetuity for the benefit of all’. Faced with this opposition, and after consultation with Heritage New Zealand, the Catholic Archdiocese commissioned a conservation plan for the site. The first draft of the plan, prepared by Stephen Cashmore, was released in 1995.

      In 1993 a designation for an eight metre road widening on the eastern boundary of the cemetery was uplifted by the Council. However, in 1994 the university made an application to the Council to have the road widening designation reinstated. Concerned by this development, FMSC successfully applied to become a Heritage Protection Authority, under Section 188 of the Resource Management Act of 1991 and in 1996 they placed a Heritage Order on the cemetery. That June, the University withdrew the application to have the roading designation reinstated.  

      The WCC sought to have the Heritage Order withdrawn, but FMSC held firm. The following year, a variation to the District Plan (Variation 9), to extend the area under the Heritage Order to the cemetery’s McKenzie Terrace and Mount Street boundaries (by way of a buffer), was advertised by the WCC. In 1998 the buffer zones proposed under Variation 9 were formally confirmed.

      A second edition of the conservation plan was prepared in 1998 and grants were provided by the Wellington City Council, the Lion Foundation and the New Zealand Lottery Grants Board to enable the Friends to undertake survey and repair work and look at the long-term conservation of the site. However, a lack of momentum saw the cemetery suffer again from a lack of regular tidying and maintenance.

      In 2007, conservation architect Ian Bowman was retained to update the conservation plan, which was finalised in 2008. The state of the cemetery led to a group of concerned individuals reviving the FMSC in 2010. An active and dedicated committee gained the strong support of the Archbishop of Wellington John Dew and sought community funding, with considerable success. A grant of $6,000 came from the Lion Foundation for grave repairs. The WCC gave a grant of $2,160 for gradiometer survey to identify any graves under the path. More headstone repairs were undertaken after $10,000 grant was received from the Community Trust of Wellington. A further $5,000 from the Wellington City Council was provided for timber grave surrounds. A further grant of $8,890 was provided by the New Zealand Lottery Grants Board for a gradiometer survey of the entire Cemetery.

      In November 2010, 200 people gathered at the Mount Street Cemetery to mark the 170th anniversary of the cemetery’s consecration by Bishop Pompallier.

      Together with a significant amount of voluntary work by FMSC, the grants have enabled a significant improvement to the appearance and integrity of the cemetery and its contents. 

      The graves

      Until 1918, cemetery records were held at St Mary of the Angels on Boulcott Street. Unfortunately, a fire that year destroyed the original timber church and amongst other important parish and diocese documents, many of the original burial records were destroyed. This large gap in the cemetery’s records was later partially rectified by an unofficial sexton, J.C. Earp, who in 1959 took it upon himself to compile a record of the locations of the existing graves. In recent years the Wellington Catholic Archdiocese, through the FMSC, has continued this work and put considerable resources into establishing the identities of those buried there. It is now estimated that, although only around 200 headstones exist (identifying the remains of about 350 people), there could be as many as 1,150 people buried there.

      More information on the nature of the cemetery’s graves is contained in the 2008 update of the conservation plan.

      The burial list, as of 2011 is at the following link.

      More information on the settlers and clergy buried in Mount St Cemetery is held at the following.

  • close Cultural Value
    • Significance Summary close
      • Mount Street Cemetery is a place of high heritage value, being the final resting place for many of the city’s early Catholic clergy and laity, including some notable Wellington settlers.
      • It contains some fine gravestones and memorials, although many grave markers, being made of timber, have long gone.
      • The cemetery is a place of antiquity and beauty and a notable contrast with its urban surroundings.
      • The cemetery’s continuous connection with the Catholic Church, which remains the owner of the property, gives the site particular significance. It has also long been associated with Victoria University, with which it shares a common boundary.

    • Aesthetic Valueclose
      The cemetery has high aesthetic value that derives from a combination of sources: The attractive setting with mature trees and plantings that make it a quiet and leafy oasis in an otherwise very busy area, the orderly layout of graves across a sharply undulating landscape; the quality, variety and age of the visible grave markers; and the age-worn and slightly unkempt, not over-tended nature of the area that firmly marks it an old and important place. The cemetery is a place well known to Victoria University students and staff, Kelburn residents, Wellington’s Catholic community and others. Coupled with its fine location, this makes it a notable Wellington landmark. It contains the oldest evidence of post-European settlement in this part of Wellington. The mixture of graves, trees and open space imbues the place with much visual interest. The visible graves date mainly from the 19th century and share a visual harmony through the use of traditional materials and grave styles in a mature and attractive setting.
    • Historic Valueclose
      Mount Street Cemetery is an area intimately associated with the Catholic Church in Wellington and with important early clergy and settlers. Bishop Pompallier was nimble and assertive enough to advocate for a separate Catholic cemetery right after the city’s founding. Various Wellington-based bishops have managed the cemetery since its inception. Fr. O’Reily lived alongside the cemetery and oversaw its initial use. He is buried in the cemetery, along with important early French clergy who helped establish the church in Wellington and further afield. The cemetery is full of graves of families that did much to establish 19th century Wellington, but, ultimately, it is a largely egalitarian place where the distinguished lie alongside people who never achieved much prominence but who lived lives of meaning and fulfilment. Mount Street Cemetery is in many ways very typical of 19th century cemeteries and it is one of a number of separate Catholic cemeteries in New Zealand. However , it is also unique, as a record of life and death for Catholics in Wellington over a period of half a century from the establishment of the city.
    • Scientific Valueclose
      Mount Street Cemetery has considerable archaeological value. The physical fabric of graves and memorials and the cultural landscape that sit within provide evidence about past attitudes to death and changes in fashion and taste over time. Decorative elements provide information about symbolism and cultural beliefs and the quality of materials can provide information about socio-economic status in funerary customs. The burials themselves also possess important archaeological values. Studies of human remains can provide a wide range of scientific information. However, because cemeteries are sensitive sites, their potential to provide information about past populations is limited by their on-going cultural value. Cemeteries, particularly those with legible or restored gravestones, are well placed to offer educational value to visitors. They are not only sources of information for geneologists, but offer insights into past events, livestyles and funerary practices.
    • Social Valueclose
      The efforts of the FMSC – initially in the 1990s and again from 2010 – have rehabilitated the cemetery and restored both its public profile and the respect for its history and fabric. The place is very well known to Victoria University students in particular. Burials are no longer undertaken at Mount Street but the cemetery remains a place of very great spiritual and cultural importance, particularly for Wellington Catholics. It is a place of particular importance to families with forebears buried in the cemetery. The cemetery is clearly a focus for community identity, being a very old Wellington cemetery and a place where important early Catholic clergy and laity are buried. The efforts of the FMSC are a testament to the connection of present generations with the place. The cemetery is a reminder of the earliest arrangement of the city, when it stood on the far outskirts of town. Its survival, like part of Bolton Street Cemetery, is a link with the city’s very early history and a strong contributor to a sense of place. The efforts of FMSC and the Catholic Archdiocese to improve the appearance of the cemetery and to undertake conservation and research into graves has refocussed community attention on the cemetery, both within the Catholic Church and more widely.
    • Level Of Cultural Heritage Significanceclose
      The cemetery is in many ways entirely typical of 19th century cemeteries that can be found in New Zealand and in other western countries. It is also unique, as a record of life and death among Wellington’s Catholics over a period of half a century (and more in some cases), starting from the earliest days of the city. It contains the graves of a number of Wellingtonians who led, in a number of cases, remarkable and interesting lives. The Cemetery contains graves and monuments that are typical of the second half of the 19th century and cover a broad range of styles and types that were popular at various times through that period. The area is not entirely authentic because many timber (and some stone) markers have gone and the vast majority of graves are now not marked. However, the fabric that remains is generally authentic and retains much of its integrity.
    • New Zealand Heritage Listclose
  • close New Zealand Heritage List
  • close Additional Information

Last updated: 1/10/2020 1:24:33 AM